My legs ache and a blister throbs, but I don’t stop or slow down. I focus on the copper vessel ahead of me with its beaded red cloth cover. It holds water collected four days ago at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes in New York State. The sacred bucket was carried by a relay of walkers eighty miles around the lake. I joined the walk Monday morning for the last eight miles.
A woman carries the vessel, always a woman. A man or woman carry an eagle feather for protection of the water. Simple white letters painted on a support car window read “Prayer Walk for a Gas Free Seneca.”
The water moves forward, never backward. The lead woman walks quickly while praying for protection of the water before passing it to the next carrier. If walkers fall behind, they’re picked up by a support car and driven a mile ahead to wait for the group. They can rest longer or walk again.
A few miles into the walk, Margie Rodgers, the local organizer, motions that I’m next to carry the water. She directs me into a car for a short drive. I get out ahead of the walkers, stand by the road, and wait. The copper vessel moves toward me. Serious silent walkers carry the vessel and feather and more follow behind, praying for the safety of the water of Seneca Lake and the water of the earth.
The lead woman reaches out to me with the bucket in her hand. We move forward together as prayers are said for the safe exchange. She lets go. I’m the water carrier now. A woman carries the eagle feather on my left side. The forward flow is both urgent and peaceful, and I sweat with exertion under my rain gear. In rhythm with my fast steps, I silently repeat “Ga nun da sa ga Te car ne o di,” the Iroquios language blessing for Seneca, the Lake in the Hills.
When we pollute our water, we kill life. Fossil fuels spill, leak, and explode. Sewage and toxic chemicals enter our lakes, rivers, and oceans. The gas industry threatens to industrialize and pollute beautiful Seneca Lake.
I had to be here today. No one woman walked every step, although four took the whole journey, rotating rest and support with walking or carrying the vessel. The water moved toward its destination from sunrise to sunset, sometimes 25 miles in a day.
Margie and Sharon Day, the Ojibwe Mississippi River walker who guides the ritual, sometimes carry the water or drive a support car. Sharon organized a prayer walk carrying water from the headlands of the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, 1200 miles, in March 2013. In 2011, she gathered water from the Gulf and walked north with other walkers. She drove here from Minnesota to teach the ritual and lead the walk with Margie.
I’m moved by Sharon’s simple humility in her long floral skirt, her purple parka, and her black watchman’s cap. With a ceremonial copper container, a feather, a water song, and her knowledge, she shared this sacred ritual journey.When we reach the southern tip of Seneca Lake where the walk began, my heart swells with hope. We’re here, pulled forward by the water. Like others, I’ve walked harder and longer than I thought I could do.
Crossing the grass in her black skirt and pink fleece, Margie carries the vessel to water’s edge. “Remove the cloth,” Sharon says quietly. “Offer it to the sky four times.” Margie lifts the pail to the sky. Four times. “Put the water in the lake,” Sharon whispers.
“Just fling it?” Margie asks.
Margie gives the vessel a heave and the water flies toward the lake. The lake and the purified water are reunited and blessed along with thirty Prayer Walkers who are there and many others who walked and helped along the way.
I leave a basket of offerings from my garden for the ritual dinner—red fall raspberries, Sun Gold tomatoes, red peppers, and the last gladiola—and return home to the silence of my land. My inner prayer continues for clean water, for Mother Seneca, for Mother Earth.
Ga nun da sa ga Te car ne o di
Thanks to Sharon Day for her wise teaching and deep devotion to the water. Thanks to Margie Rodgers for organizing the walk and reading and correcting this article. Thanks to Joyce Hexum and Ali Murphy who were there for every mile and to many others who gave hours, days, and devotion. For my other posts about protecting Seneca Lake from gas storage and industrialization, see Angry Faces, Placid Water and Angry Faces, Churning Water. To help protect our water and Seneca Lake, visit Gas Free Seneca.